Planet Labs Flock
Planet Labs’ Flock 1 satellites. Credit: Planet Labs

SAN FRANCISCO — Planet Labs, the San Francisco company planning to establish the world’s largest Earth imaging constellation, announced Nov. 26 the successful launch of two satellites and shipment to Virginia of 28 additional spacecraft in preparation for their December launch. 

On Nov. 21, Planet Labs sent triple cubesats Dove 3 and Dove 4 into polar orbit on a Dnepr rocket from Russia’s Yasny launch site. “The launch was extremely successful,” said William Marshall, Planet Labs co-founder and chief executive. “They went into precisely the orbit we wanted. We have also successfully made contact.”

The latest additions to the Planet Labs fleet offer improvements in the capability provided by the firm’s first satellites launched in April, Dove 1 and Dove 2, which also were triple cubesats measuring 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 30 centimeters. 

Dove 3 and Dove 4 will demonstrate the firm’s latest technology, including upgraded communications, attitude control and observation technology. “We like to iterate our satellite designs very rapidly,” Marshall said. “It’s the same compact form factor as Dove 1 and Dove 2, but we have stuck in more capability.”

Dove 2 launched April 19 on a Soyuz-2.1a rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. It rode into orbit as a secondary payload on the Bion-M1 biological experiment satellite. On April 21, Bion-M1 deployed the Dove 2 cubesat. 

Dove 1 traveled April 21 on the maiden flight of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket. Dove 1 re-entered Earth’s atmosphere six days later. Dove 2 remains aloft.

Now, Planet Labs is preparing for the Dec. 17 launch of its operational Earth imaging constellation of 28 satellites, dubbed Flock 1, onboard Orbital’s Antares rocket destined for the international space station. Planet Labs completed production of the cubesats and shipped them in November to NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia for integration on the first of eight space station cargo transportation flights performed by Orbital’s Antares rocket under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program. 

After their launch in 2014, Planet Labs’ Flock 1 cubesats are expected to occupy a 400-kilometer circular orbit at an inclination of 52 degrees relative to the equator. 

By establishing a 28-satellite constellation, Planet Labs is seeking to provide Earth imagery at a higher resolution and with higher frequency than currently exists in the market. “This fleet will be acting a little bit like a line scanner for the Earth,” Marshall said. “Every place on the Earth will be covered.”

The Flock 1 constellation is designed to collect frequent imagery of latitudes within 52 degrees of the equator. Because Dove 3 and Dove 4 are in sun- synchronous orbit, they will provide imagery of areas not observed by Flock 1, Planet Labs spokeswoman Tracy Nguyen said by email. 

The Flock 1 constellation is designed to provide imagery with a resolution of 3 to 5 meters, Marshall said. Company executives are eager to see the imagery used to support a wide array of environmental, humanitarian and business missions. 

“There is a great deal of interest from customers but we are not going to talk about any details of that at this time,” Marshall said, citing the proprietary nature of many of those conversations. 

Planet Labs built the miniature satellites in its 740-square-meter offices here, which house the firm’s 35 full-time employees. In recent months, those offices also were home to Forest Stearns, an artist in residence who created a unique design for the cubesats.

“There is a panel on the side of the spacecraft that gets exposed when the solar arrays are unfurled,” Marshall said. Stearns “put beautiful murals of flocking and herding birds, animals and fish on the side of the satellites. We take a lot of pride in our satellites. They are beautiful and we are trying to make them even more beautiful.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is...